Kicking out Senate chiefs

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

If you ask former Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III, he only pooh-poohs the much-vaunted Malacañang Palace hands as supposedly behind the ouster of erstwhile Senate president Juan Miguel Zubiri. Sotto believes President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. (PBBM) in particular had nothing to do in the most recent Senate leadership coup. 

Sotto and PBBM were at the Senate together from 2010 to 2016. Zubiri was Senate majority leader when Sotto was Senate chief during the 18th Congress. Also, Sotto is the chairman of the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC) that just signed an alliance with PBBM’s Partido Federal ng Pilipinas (PFP) last May 19. So we know where he’s coming from.

A Senate Resolution signed by 15 out of 24 Senators was presented at the floor in last Monday’s sessions. It called for Zubiri to step down as Senate chief. NPC partymate of Sotto, Sen. Francis “Chiz” Escudero was immediately voted on the same day to become the new Senate president. As the usual consequence in any leadership shake-up, the members of the new majority who voted for Escudero naturally got their key Senate committee assignments. 

Zubiri and six Senators who stood behind him now call themselves as the “Solid 7.” Three of the four other NPC Senators stayed with Zubiri. They were, namely, former Senate president pro tempore Loren Legarda, Senators JV Ejercito, and Sherwin Gatchalian. NPC Sen. Lito Lapid voted for Escudero.

Ejercito personally suspects there was Malacañang blessing that gained support for the removal of Zubiri. Ejercito raised the possibility that the “Solid 7” may align themselves with the two Senators in the minority bloc. If this new minority bloc gels, PBBM will see more Senators in the opposition ranks when he delivers his third state of the nation address (SONA) on the opening day of sessions this July 22.

Speaking in our weekly Kapihan sa Manila Bay news forum last Wednesday, Sotto shared with us the historical basis why he believes Malacañang has little, if none at all, to do with any Senate leadership change plots. Sotto tried to douse Zubiri’s claims that his immediate successor as Senate chief paid dearly for “not following the instructions from the powers-that-be.”

Sotto first got elected as ordinary Senator when he topped in the 12-man Senate race during the May 1992 elections. He became Senate majority leader in the 17th Congress with Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III as the Senate president in July 2016. By tradition, he cited, the Senators’ consensus is to pick a Senate chief who belongs to the same party of whoever is in Malacañang.

That was then newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte who won under PDP-Laban and was intact until they split into two opposing blocs.         

Under a “term-sharing” agreement with Pimentel, Sotto took over as Senate president during the second half of the term of 17th Congress. Sotto then got re-elected as Senate chief and served the entire term of the 18th Congress until he graduated from his second and last term in office in June 2022.

For a total of 24 years, Sotto was a Senator and he speaks from a wealth of his experience of interactions of Congress and Malacañang and even among with fellow lawmakers in Congress. A Senator has a fixed term of six years, with one re-election only. 

During his first break from the Senate, Sotto served in the Executive branch as Dangerous Drugs Board chairman in 2008-2009. He made a successful comeback in 2010 and got re-elected for another six years in office. Every Congress has a life of three years. Hence, Sotto effectively served a total of eight Congresses. 

At the end of his last stint at the Senate, Sotto returned to his long-running noontime TV show “Eat Bulaga” aired daily at TV 5. Now 76 years old, he earlier declared his comeback bid at the Senate in the coming May 12, 2025 elections.

Sotto actually started his political career as Quezon City Vice Mayor from 1988-1992. He drew all his experiences in politics to know the finer rudiments in dealing with the “power-that-be” in Malacañang. 

During his more than two decades in Congress, Sotto remembers there were only two instances when the Senators took into account Malacañang’s desire in the choice of a Senate president. The late Senator Marcelo Fernan was especially mentioned to them by former President Joseph Estrada who was once a Senator himself in the 8th Congress. Sotto narrated the Senators from the majority bloc sounded out the ex-President during a Malacañang meeting before the 10th Congress opened in July 1998. 

The former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court was elected as Senate president. Briefly into office, Fernan resigned due to lung cancer illness. The late Sen. Blas Ople replaced him in June 1999.

The second instance, Sotto recalled, was during the term of the late President Benigno Simeon Aquino III (PNoy). Malacañang wanted a Liberal Party (LP) Senator to be the Senate president, Sotto revealed. However, the Senators elected Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile instead as the Senate president of the 15th Congress in July 2010. 

Enrile served as Senate chief until he resigned on the last session day of Congress when nine of PNoy’s handpicked candidates and three from the opposition won in the May 2013 Senate race. In a privilege speech, Enrile assailed accusations against him by some of his Senate colleagues, including the “cash gifts” he supposedly gave to favored senators.

So what else is new in this latest Senate leadership coup?

Coming in two days before the 19th Congress adjourned sine die, the latest leadership change at the Senate actually came as anti-climax. There is not much political gains when both chambers meet again because it will already be the third and last regular sessions. This is not to mention the fact that most of the lawmakers will be on campaign mode for next year’s elections once they file their respective certificates of candidacy this October.

For a legislative assembly that rabidly protects its independence from other co-equal branches of the government, kicking out a Senate chief supposedly backed by Malacañang will be untenable to them.

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